Technology has made huge strides in the last couple of decades. Thanks to new electronic gadgets, you can now store your whole music collection in a machine the size of a single cassette tape, snap hundreds of photos without ever changing a roll of film, and drive across the country without touching a road map.
The only catch is, as fast as we keep buying these life-changing devices, newer and better ones come out. Technology advances at such a breakneck pace that last year’s state-of-the art gadget is likely to be obsolete by now. This means if you don’t want to fall behind the curve, you have to keep shelling out for new devices year after year, just to keep up.
Fortunately, in many cases, there’s an app for that. Or rather, to be more exact, there’s a whole assortment of different apps that can allow just one device – your smartphone or tablet – to take the place of a whole slew of others. This saves space in your home and car, cuts down on electronic waste – and, since apps are a lot cheaper to upgrade than whole devices, also keeps hundreds of extra bucks in your pocket.
Electronic Gadgets You Can Replace With a Mobile Device
On CNET‘s rundown of the best GPS navigation devices, the top pick is a Garmin unit that starts at $330. Some less expensive models also get pretty good ratings, but none of them costs less than $200. By contrast, the Google Maps app is free for both iOS and Android, and it comes pre-installed on Android phones.
This app offers all the features you expect from a GPS device, such as turn-by-turn instructions and guidance on which lane to select. It also lets you navigate using voice commands, so you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel – a feature that only the highest-end GPS units offer. And it provides continuous updates on the real-time traffic situation, changing your route as needed to avoid delays.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that when this game-changing app first came out, the value of TomTom and Garmin – the two leading manufacturers of GPS units – dropped by 20% in a single day.
In the past, navigating with an app had one big drawback: If you ever lost your data signal while driving, you’d lose access to your route as well. However, Google Maps now allows you to download an area map for later use, so you can still use it even if you lose coverage – or if you just don’t want to run up the data usage on your phone. Several other free or cheap navigation apps, including CoPilot Premium, Navmii, and Here, also offer this feature.
Convenient as it may be, it is important to realize that navigating with an app still has a few drawbacks. Using the app while driving runs up your data bill unless you download all your maps ahead of time. It puts a big drain on your battery too, so you’ll probably need to buy a car charger if you don’t already have one.
A windshield or dashboard mount is also a must, since many states have banned driving with a phone in your hand. Also, smartphones generally have smaller screens and speakers than a stand-alone GPS unit, and they don’t always run as smoothly.
But on the whole, a navigation app can do pretty much everything a GPS unit can – and it can do it for a lot less money. So unless you already own a GPS unit that comes with free lifetime map upgrades, a free or low-cost navigation app is bound to be a better value.
Sales figures from the Camera & Imaging Products Association show that between 2012 and 2014, sales of digital cameras fell by more than 50%. The biggest share of this drop came from inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, as opposed to the hefty single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras designed for serious photographers. The reason for this is plain to see: Casual photographers, the kind most likely to use a point-and-shoot camera, are increasingly relying on their smartphone cameras instead.
A smartphone’s camera can’t possibly compete with an SLR camera when it comes to picture quality. Consumer Reports compares several photos taken with an iPhone 5 to the same shots taken with a Sony SLR camera, and the Sony’s images are clearly superior. It does a much better job of capturing details in low light, adjusting the focus between foreground and background, and zooming in for closeups. Plus, the blog entry points out, an advanced digital camera has more sophisticated controls than a smartphone camera and a more powerful, adjustable flash.
But there is a catch. As of 2014, the camera used to take the high-quality photos cost $1,300. That’s an awful lot of camera for snapping vacation photos and birthday party pics, which is all most users need to do. And compared to a basic point-and-shoot camera – the kind you can get for $200 or less – a smartphone camera actually performs quite well.
True, the average smartphone has a lower megapixel count than the average point-and-shoot camera, according to PCWorld. But the truth is, beyond a certain point, packing in more megapixels doesn’t really improve image quality, and a typical smartphone has more than enough to produce high-quality prints. Sensor size, which experts consider more important than megapixels, is also a bit bigger for the average point-and-shoot camera than for the average phone – but top-of-the-line smartphones, such as the latest Apple iPhone, actually have better sensors than low-end cameras. And while smartphone cameras don’t have the built-in optical zoom lenses required for detailed close-up shots, most amateur photographers simply don’t need to get clear images from a thousand feet away.
So the bottom line is, while a smartphone camera isn’t quite as good as a digital camera, for most users, it’s good enough. Plus, as Consumer Reports points out, the best camera to take a picture with is “the one you have with you.” So if your smartphone is always on you, relying on its camera for casual snapshots saves you the trouble of carrying around a separate camera – as well as the $200 or so you’d spend on one.
3. Digital Picture Frame
No matter how you take your photos, you need some way to display them. You can do it the old-fashioned way, printing them out and putting them in frames, but a digital picture frame gives you more versatility. You can store a whole collection of photos right in the digital frame’s memory and change them as often as you like – or set up the frame to rotate through them all in a slideshow format. With some high-end digital frames, you can even send photos directly to the frame from your phone, with no need to attach a cable.
The downside of digital photo frames is their price. The most basic ones cost as little as $40, but models with more features are much pricier. One frame that gets a rave review from CNET, the Nixplay Edge, has a regular price of $250.
However, it’s quite easy to turn any Android tablet into a digital frame with an app called Dayframe. It can pull photos from the tablet itself, from your social media accounts, or from any other photo website that you link to. On an iPad, you can set up similar photo displays with the Picmatic app. Both apps are free, but investing $10 to $50 in a good tablet stand helps you to better display your pictures.
You can program Dayframe to display photos on your current tablet PC while you’re not using it. Or, you can take an older, unused tablet and turn it into a full-time digital photo display. In fact, you can purchase a used or refurbished tablet from Amazon Warehouse Deals for as low as $35 and use it solely as a picture frame – for far less than you’d pay for the pricey Nixplay Edge frame.
A smartphone’s camera isn’t limited to still photos – it can capture moving images as well. Many phones and tablets can record video in high definition (HD) and come with built-in video editing and sharing software. You can also tack on additional apps – such as MoviePro for iOS ($4.99) or Camera JB+ for Android ($1.99) – to enhance your camera’s video recording functions. Free apps for enhanced video editing, such as Adobe Premiere Clip or Magisto, are also available.
Experts argue that a phone’s camera, even one with HD, can’t match the performance of a dedicated video camera. The Wirecutter points out that a camcorder not only has better image quality and an improved zoom lens, but also is much easier to use from a variety of angles without having to squat or stretch out in an awkward position.
But once again, it’s a question of how much you’re willing to spend for this added quality and convenience. The top-rated video camera at The Wirecutter costs $550 – and even its budget pick is $230. And, just like a still camera, it’s one more thing to carry around with you. CNET concludes that for about 95% of the video shooting you do, your phone is good enough, and much more convenient to use.
5. Music Player
Listening to music on the go has grown a lot easier over the past few decades. In the 1990s, if you wanted music to accompany you on a morning run, you needed a bulky portable cassette or CD player that could hold exactly one album at a time. Today, you can keep a whole collection of albums on a small portable digital music player and listen to any of them on demand. Your choices range from the $400 iPod Touch, with 128GB of memory, to the $35 Sansa Clip, with only 8GB – which is still enough to store thousands of songs.
But as music technology continues to advance, even these advanced devices are fast becoming obsolete. With cloud storage, it’s no longer really necessary to carry your music with you – you can just store your whole collection online and access it at will. All you need is a music player app, such as the standard “Music” app that comes on iOS devices, the free Rocket Music Player for Android devices, or Google Play Music, which is free and available for both.
You can also abandon the entire idea of a music “collection” and instead rely on streaming music services, such as Pandora or Spotify. You can listen to either one for free with a few ads sprinkled in, or upgrade to an ad-free subscription for $5 to $10 a month. Even if you choose a paid version, you can listen for a long time before paying as much as you’d spend on a new iPod.
What a music player does for your music collection, an e-reader can do for your library. You can carry literally thousands of volumes everywhere you go, stored in a device smaller than a single hardcover book.
The two main brands of e-readers are the Amazon Kindle, with prices starting at $80, and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, which starts at $130. CNET generally gives higher ratings to Kindle e-readers – particularly the $200 Kindle Voyage – but it says the entry-level NOOK is also worth considering “if you don’t want to buy into the Amazon ecosystem.”
And that’s precisely the catch with buying either type of e-reader: The Kindle and the NOOK each use different, proprietary formats for their texts, and the e-books that work on one aren’t readable on the other. So by choosing either the Kindle or the NOOK, you lock yourself into buying all of your e-books from a single source. You’re limited to whichever e-books the retailer chooses to stock, and if a book is available via both retailers, you can’t choose the version with the best price.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way around this. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer free apps that make it possible to read their e-books on your phone or tablet – so if you install both apps, you can read books in both formats. Admittedly, a smartphone’s screen is a bit small for book reading, but a tablet’s is pretty much the same size as a dedicated e-reader.
Using a tablet as your e-reader gives you other options too. You can read books in the open-standard ePub format, available from electronic libraries and public-domain sites like Project Gutenberg. You can also use your tablet’s web browser to read newspapers, magazines, or anything else that’s available online.
7. Handheld Gaming Console
When the Nintendo Game Boy came out back in 1989, it cost $90 – the equivalent of about $172 in today’s dollars – and it was pretty much the coolest toy available, even with its blocky 8-bit graphics and cumbersome game cartridges. Fast forward to today, and Nintendo is offering a much more sophisticated handheld console – the 3DS XL – that features three-dimensional graphics and comes with an assortment of 10 games. At $200, it’s barely more expensive than the old Game Boy was in its day (when adjusted for inflation).
Yet hardly anyone is buying it. The Christian Science Monitor describes sales of the 3DS XL and other handheld gaming consoles as “pitiful” because they’re pricey, have poor battery life, and don’t offer anything really innovative in terms of game design. Meanwhile, smartphone and tablet apps include an ever-widening array of games, many of which you can play for free – from casual games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, to old classics like Tetris.
Some serious gamers dislike smartphone games because the controls on a phone’s touchscreen aren’t as responsive as the physical buttons and pads on a console. However, game reviewer Scott Stein of CNET – a lifelong fan of handheld games – points out that phone games have some major advantages too. You can play hundreds of different games on a single device, and you can also insert it into a virtual reality (VR) headset. The phone serves as both the game screen and the processor, so there’s no need to be tied to a separate computer.
Stein concludes, with some regret, that the day of the handheld game console is probably over. Even for those who love handheld games, a phone or tablet is now the easiest way to play them.
8. Alarm Clock
There’s a huge variety of alarm clocks on the market, from old-fashioned models with an actual bell, to high-tech digital versions that automatically sync up with the U.S. Atomic Clock. You can pay less than $10 for a bare-bones travel alarm, or shell out $400 for a brass-encased bedside clock from Tiffany & Co. However, all these clocks, regardless of price, really do the same job. And that’s a job your phone or tablet can do perfectly well.
You can choose from a wide variety of apps to wake you with anything from your favorite song to the morning news. You can wake up gently with a progressive alarm, which plays a series of chimes that grow gradually closer together over a 10-minute period, or a “pre-alarm” soft enough to wake you from a light sleep without disrupting your deep sleep. Or, if you have a lot of trouble getting out of bed, you can choose an alarm app that won’t shut up until you pick up the phone and walk around with it.
Experts warn that sleeping with your phone right next to you has some risks. Although there’s no clear evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer, the National Cancer Institute notes that some studies appear to show a possible link between heavy cell phone use and brain cancer – and sleeping with your phone right next to your head exposes you to its radiation all night, every night. However, you can reduce this risk by putting the phone several feet away or switching it to airplane mode, so that it can no longer receive calls.
Another problem is that if your phone or tablet is right at your side at bedtime, it’s easy to keep using it instead of going to sleep. And even after you shut it off, you could have trouble falling asleep right away. A 2015 study of teens in Norway, reported in the journal BMJ Open, found that using any device with a screen within an hour before bedtime significantly increased the amount of time it took them to get to sleep afterwards. So if you know you can’t keep your hands off your phone when it’s within reach, that’s a good reason to stash it somewhere else and use a plain old alarm clock instead.
9. Home Weather Station
A home weather station gives you a more detailed look at your local weather conditions than you can get with a quick peek out the window. At a glance, you can see temperature and humidity levels, wind speed, the forecast for the day – even details like UV radiation levels and expected rainfall. And because they’re using data from right outside your home, they’re much more precise than your local news station’s daily weather forecast.
All this information comes with a cost though. The top-rated weather station in tests performed by Wired costs $280, and it takes a bit of work to get it up and running. By contrast, free weather apps like Weather and Clock Widget or Weather Underground can show you the weather conditions – not just in your area, but anywhere in the world.
A roundup of Android weather apps from PC concedes that these apps probably aren’t as strictly accurate as a dedicated weather station, but all of them are still “quite accurate” – and quite a lot cheaper. Plus, since they fit right on your phone or tablet, you can use them to get an up-to-the-minute weather report everywhere you go.
If you’re like many Americans, you already own a smartphone or a tablet – if not both – and you’re paying between $50 and $100 each month for a cell phone plan. So it makes perfect sense to get your money’s worth by using your phone to replace as many other devices as possible.
However, if you haven’t yet jumped on the smartphone bandwagon, it’s not so clear whether it’s really worth buying a smartphone or tablet and dumping all your other gadgets. According to PC World, between the cost of the device itself and the plan, the most popular smartphones all cost around $3,800 to own for two years. Compared to that, paying separately for a GPS, a camera, a music player, and so on starts to look like a pretty good deal.
Fortunately, there’s another option: buy the device itself and don’t sign up for a plan. You can buy a decent smartphone, iPod Touch, or a low-end tablet for $200 or less. If you have WiFi at home, you can use that to connect your new phone or tablet to the Internet and download maps, make VoIP calls, get the latest weather report, or access music and photos you’ve stored in the cloud.
Even when you’re away from your home network, you can still access any content you’ve downloaded ahead of time, from music, to books, to maps. And you don’t need to be connected to the Internet at all to use your phone or tablet for taking pictures, shooting video, or playing games. This gives you the best of both worlds – one device that does the job of nine, without any extra bills to pay each month.
What do you use your smartphone or tablet for?